That Mind Which Has No Beginning:
A Reading of Hesse’s Glass Bead Game with Gadamer’s Truth and Method
by Christine Hoff Kraemer
Glass Bead Game is Hermann Hesse’s last and most
difficult novel. Like his earlier novels, Demian and Steppenwolf in
particular, The Glass Bead Game focuses
on a process of spiritual individuation that takes place in the form of
dialogical interactions. The Glass Bead
Game, however, is much more than just another Bildungsroman. Although the original
English translation of the novel was entitled Magister Ludi, or Master of the Game, the newer edition by Richard
and Clara Winston retains
this essay I hope to demonstrate why, given this brief overview of the novel, I
believe the hermeneutical philosophy of Hans-Georg Gadamer is such an appropriate lens through which to
examine The Glass Bead Game. Gadamer’s
articulation of play as the mode of being of art, the fusion of the personal
with the historical/traditional horizon, and the dialogical use of language in
the creation of meaning are concepts that draw out the major themes of the
novel and help the reader to experience this difficult and sometimes obscure
text as lushly spiritual. Though readers of Hesse,
particularly those engaged in active rebellion against the dominant culture,
have welcomed novels such as Steppenwolf as
orgiastic hymns to drugs, jazz, and sex (Ziolkowski,
xi), such readings misinterpret Hesse’s central
themes of self-individuation and the struggle towards a spiritual existence
(remembering that in German, spirit or Geist means both
spirit and mind). One cannot fully understand
For the purposes of our discussion, a brief summary of the novel will be helpful. The novel is constructed as a biography of Joseph Knecht, Master of the Glass Bead Game, and composed after Knecht’s death by a rather dry, humorless, and pompous scholar of the Castalian order. The biography follows Knecht’s life as an orphan selected at a young age to be educated in the elite schools of Castalia, where he enjoys a fruitful mentorship with Castalia’s kind and grandfatherly Music Master. Knecht’s school experience brings him into contact with a student who will not be entering the scholarly order but instead going out into public life, and in their debates Knecht both learns about the outside world and solidifies his identity as a Castalian. After his formal studies are complete, Knecht pursues independent study for some years, focusing finally on the Glass Bead Game, the only Castalian activity which is primarily artistic rather than scholarly. Knecht is assigned a post at a Catholic monastery, which turns into a diplomatic mission to forge closer ties between Castalia and the Church. During this period he befriends the statesman and historian Father Jacobus, who gives Knecht the education in world history that the schools of Castalia neglected entirely. The death of the Master of the Game results in Knecht’s being raised to the position, due to his exemplary service to the order and his unsurpassed skill in the game itself. Knecht’s career as Magister Ludi spans several decades, and is characterized primarily by peaceful prosperity, as well as by intense friendships with Tegularius, a brilliant but unstable scholar, and Designori, his old schoolyard debate partner who has become disillusioned by his failures in both public and private life. Over time, however, Knecht becomes convinced that Castalia has grown dangerously estranged from the realities of the world political scene. Knecht’s connections to the world outside the order allow him to grasp the ephemerality of institutions, as well as the increasing feeling amongst the non-Castalian world that Castalia is an irrelevant luxury, likely to be cut from the national budget in a time of upheaval. Knecht’s spiritual and intellectual journey and his desire to serve (his name “Knecht” means “servant”) lead him at last to do the unthinkable – to leave the order to pursue a life in the world. By doing this, he hopes to warn the order of its danger in a way he could not with mere words, as well as make the next necessary step in his spiritual evolution. Here the biography proper ends, and is replaced by a “legend” that the biographer says was written by some of Knecht’s devoted students. Knecht takes a position as tutor for Designori’s adolescent son, thus fulfilling his desire to teach the young and unsophisticated, those most unspoiled by poor education. When the exuberant young man impulsively challenges Knecht to a swim in icy cold water, however, Knecht fears to lose the boy’s blooming trust and dives in. His heart gives out, and he drowns, leaving an aegis of guilt and duty on the young man that the legend suggests will alter the course of his entire life. This main narrative is followed by some of Knecht’s poetry, written during his school days, and three “Lives” written as school exercises, each imagining a past life for the student. These “Lives” are rich spiritual narratives in which the themes of mentorship and education, self-sacrifice, and the cultivation of meditative consciousness are primary. A final feature of the book which should not be left unmentioned is the transformation of the voice of the biographer through the course of the novel. As Ziolkowski puts it in his introduction,
. . . the Castalian self-obsession from which Knecht defects is nowhere more evident than in the smug complacency of the narrator in the Introduction and opening chapters. Ironically, as he learns to appreciate the meaning of Knecht’s life by writing his biography, the narrator assumes a more humane, and in the finest sense, “spiritual” tone, thus vindicating Knecht’s action. (xix)
This dialogical emergence of meaning – between Knecht and the Music Master, Knecht and Designori, Knecht and Castalia, Knecht and Jacobus, between every master and apprentice who appear in the course of the novel and in Knecht’s Lives, and finally between the biographer and Knecht’s life story – is an essential feature of the novel. Understanding the movement of the novel as the constant active expansion and fusion of horizons is key to comprehending why Knecht, the perfect servant of Castalia, in the end must reach beyond its confines to embrace a broader and freer mode of being.
The Glass Bead Game, as
The nature of the artist and scholar’s commitment to society is a major theme in The Glass Bead Game, and is most clearly articulated in Knecht’s circular letter to the Masters of the order, a letter of warning which directly precedes his resignation. Knecht asserts that he does not believe, like Plato, that it is the duty of the scholar and sage to rule, but rather to preserve the purity “of all sources of knowledge”:
In former ages, during the wars and upheavals of so-called periods of “grandeur,” intellectuals were sometimes urged to throw themselves into politics. This was particularly the case during the late Feuilletonistic Age. That age went even further in its demands, for it insisted that Mind itself must serve politics or the military. . . . He would be a coward who withdrew from the challenges, sacrifices, and dangers his people had to endure. But he would be no less a coward and traitor who betrayed the principles of the life of the mind to material interests—who, for example, left the decision on the product of two times two to the rulers. (361)
For Knecht, as also for
The central importance of accumulated cultural tradition and knowledge in The Glass Bead Game makes it highly compatible with Gadamer’s hermeneutic philosophy, where tradition is the ground against which the individual interprets his or her experiences. Out of this dialogical interaction meaning emerges. In the realm of aesthetics, Gadamer calls the back-and-forth movement that characterizes the experience of art “play” – a word that has a special resonance in a novel whose central metaphor of the human imagination is conceptualized as a “game.” Gadamer writes:
When we speak of play in reference to the experience of art, this means neither the orientation nor even the state of mind of the creator or of those enjoying the work of art, nor the freedom of a subjectivity engaged in play, but the mode of being of art itself . . . [P]lay itself contains its own, even sacred, seriousness. (101-2)
In Castalia, the Game is more or
less the only form of creative artistic expression that is still practiced;
Knecht distinguishes himself as odd when, in his student days, he composes
poetry. Gadamer makes the distinction here that play is not necessarily the
state of mind of the creator or of the audience, but of the art itself – a
state that is characterized by total absorption by the player, such that it
takes on a kind of “sacred seriousness.” As we will see, this sacred
seriousness is an apt description of
Gadamer’s conception of play also gives us insight into the sense in which the Glass Bead Game is a game, despite the fact that any given Game has only one player. In his discussion of games, Gadamer writes:
The movement to-and-fro obviously belongs so essentially to the game that there is an ultimate sense in which you cannot have a game by yourself. In order for there to be a game, there always has to be, not necessarily literally another player, but something else with which the player plays and which automatically responds to his move with a countermove. (105-6)
In the Game, there need not be
another actual player in order for the dialogical movement out of which meaning
arises to take place – instead, the player’s partner is tradition, the
accumulated knowledge and art of the ages which he shapes into exciting new
The mechanism of the Game is explained well by Gadamer’s treatment of Kierkegaard’s “contemporaneity,” which he sees as constituting the essence of “being present” (127). Gadamer argues that the way to access the meaning of a world of art is through the viewer, who mediates between the world which produced the art and his or her own modern-day world. Through this mediation, one can bring the work of art and its origins into a state of contemporaneity – that is, a sense of total presence in which historical distance is experienced as having been eliminated. In the Game, not just one but many works of art – as well as discoveries of mathematics and other such pieces of knowledge that have aesthetic as well as truth value – are invoked in a series, so that they may interact with each other as well as with the audience. Given this description, we can easily imagine Gadamer appreciating such a game – that is, if we do not see him as having been already engaged in it himself, though the symbols he used were merely German words and his ideas limited primarily to the worlds of philosophy and literature.
extension, it is interesting to contemplate the ways in which the novel itself
is an example of the Glass Bead Game and therefore of art as play. In its most
Though Gadamer talks about play primarily as the mode of being of art, its back-and-forth movement is a specific case of the dialogical motion that characterizes all of Gadamer’s hermeneutical thought. One of the central ideas of his Truth and Method is that the subject-object split between the individual and his or her environment can be overcome through a dialectical relationship between the individual’s horizon and the horizon of tradition. Understanding arises when these two horizons encounter one another in what Gadamer calls “the fusion of horizons.” For Gadamer, however, this is not merely a philosophy of interpretation, but a philosophy of being itself. Works of art and other cultural expressions are considered as manifestations of life, and interacting with them reveals the nature of reality.
Knecht’s coming-of-age within and subsequent service to Castalia illustrates this relationship between the individual and tradition very well. The Castalian order is a highly formalized, monastic hierarchy in which the higher one rises in the order, the less freedom and more responsibility one has. The freedom to choose one’s own course of studies after formal schooling is complete is balanced by the fact that the choice of vocation and assignment are Castalia’s, never the individual’s. Thus Knecht, like all others entering the Castalian order, knows himself as an individual primarily through his place in the hierarchy. As the biographer states in the Introduction, “The hierarchic organization cherishes the ideal of anonymity, and comes very close to the realization of that ideal” (12). In Castalia, the individual’s unique traits are hidden by his office and position, and this state of affairs is considered highly desirable. But the biographer adds,
It is an old idea that the more pointedly and logically we formulate a thesis, the more irresistibly it cries out for its antithesis. We uphold and venerate the idea that underlies the anonymity of our authorities and our intellectual life. But a glance at the early history of that life of the mind we now lead, namely, a glance at the development of the Glass Bead Game, shows us irrefutably that every phase of its development, every extension, every change, every essential segment of its history, whether it be seen as progressive or conservative, bears the plain imprint of the person who introduced the change. He was not necessarily its sole or actual author, but he was the instrument of transformation and perfection. (12)
Hesse’s invocation of the Hegelian thesis-antithesis-synthesis model here fits in well with Gadamer’s fusion of horizons, since the “thesis” is essentially structured tradition passed down over centuries, and the “antithesis” is the unique contributions of individuals. Much as Castalia would like to imagine that individuals are wholly defined by the ideals of the order, they maintain separate personal horizons that sometimes shape the tradition of Castalia almost as much as the tradition of Castalia shapes them.
Gadamer’s fusion of horizons can also be used as a model to
understand Knecht’s various relationships, especially those in which debate
plays a heavy role. Knecht’s schoolyard debates with Designori, where Knecht
represents Castalia and Designori represents its worldly critique, enable both
students to come to a deeper understanding of the other’s position – in
essence, their horizons, the sum of their experiences, are fused, and each
comes away broadened.
Joseph had long since come to feel that this other boy would mean something important to him, perhaps something fine, an enlargement of his horizon, insight or illumination, perhaps also temptation and danger. (95)
Interestingly, although the debates solidify each boy as a member of his chosen world, they also intensify his infatuation with the other’s way of life. As Designori tells Knecht shortly before their schooling ends and they are parted,
“Of course I’ve known for a long time, Joseph, that you are not the credulous Glass Bead Game player and Castalian saint whose part you have been playing so splendidly. Each of us stands at an exposed spot in this battle, and each of us probably knows that what he is fighting against rightfully exists and has undeniable value. . . . Your function has been to point out how natural, naive living without discipline of the mind is bound to become a mire into which men sink, reverting to bestiality. And I for my part must remind you again and again how risky, dangerous, and ultimately sterile is a life based purely upon mind. . . . [But] I’ll confess to you that I am infatuated with your hierarchy, that it often enthralls me like happiness itself.” (107)
Designori has a similar influence on Knecht, giving him a lifelong interest in the world outside Castalia that is deepened and made relevant under the tutelage of Father Jacobus, an expert in world history.
type of relationship, where the protagonist is helped toward individuation
through contact with another, is a common theme in
. . . all these thoughts are no doubt far too abstract and explicit for Knecht [the Rainmaker] to have been capable of them. Let us say: he was on the way to them; his way would someday lead him to them and past them. . . . And if we were to go still further back beyond this Rainmaker and his time which to us seems so early and primitive, if we were to go several thousands of years back into the past, wherever we found man we would still find—this is our firm belief—the mind of man, that Mind which has no beginning and always has contained everything that it later produces. (469)
the second type of relationship, two individuals who represent distinctly
different ways of living in the world encounter each other and through debate
and opposition expand each other’s horizons and selves. In The Glass Bead Game, this is the type of relationship that Knecht
has with both Designori and Father Jacobus (although there is also something of
the master-apprentice in the latter). This model of relation is even more fully
explored in Narziss and Goldmund. As
Mileck explores in detail, just as Knecht represents
the contemplative life of the mind and Designori the active life of politics
and society, Narziss and Goldmund
represent this same polarity, except on a more physical rather than spiritual
axis: Narziss is the cloistered monk and scholar, Goldmund is the lusty hedonist and artist (290). Yet
neither of these pairs, despite the lessons they learn from each other, are
able to fully fuse their horizons to become wholly balanced people. In Narziss and Goldmund, Narziss is able to partially heal Goldmund’s
bitterness and pain when he returns to the monastery after a ten-year absence,
but Goldmund still dies without being completely
fulfilled – the statue of Eve he has dreamed of throughout his artist’s career
is still unrealized. Similarly, although Narziss is
able to experience some of the pleasures and beauties of the world of the
senses through his friend’s art, Goldmund’s dying
question hangs in the air at the book’s conclusion: can Narziss
die, having never really lived? Similarly, Knecht is able to help the older,
psychologically unstable Designori through a prescription of meditative
practice, just as Designori gives Knecht the opportunity to fulfill his
lifelong dream to serve the world as a simple teacher. The fact that Knecht
dies in this effort, however, does not constitute their failure.
And since in spite of all rational objections he felt responsible for the Master’s death, there came over him, with a premonitory shudder of awe, a sense that this guilt would utterly change him and his life, and would demand much greater things of him than he had ever before demanded of himself. (425)
Through sacrificing himself, just as the Rainmaker did, Knecht passes on some of his essence to the young boy, enabling him to follow in both his and Designori’s footsteps. Thus the two types of relationship, both master-apprentice and friend-friend, compliment each other by allowing the fusion of the personal with tradition to be corrected by the fusion of the personal with the personal.
Indeed, it seems clear that Knecht’s experiences of having his personal horizon fused with the personal horizons of men of the world are what broaden Knecht’s vision enough for him to see Castalia’s danger. Knecht’s debates with Designori and Father Jacobus over the merit of the Castalian order drive him to identify ever more strongly with Castalia, and also to strive harder to understand the nature of the tradition to which he is loyal. Over time he comes to be regarded by others in the order as an exemplary Castalian, one who represents the ideals of the cultivated mind and spirit. This perception is instrumental in Knecht’s rapid rise to the high position of Magister Ludi, and his successful twenty-year career in that position. Yet the fact that Knecht eventually leaves the order suggests that while the Castalian tradition has much in common with what Gadamer thinks of as tradition, Castalia fails the test of universality. During Knecht’s schoolyard debates with Designori, he comes to realize that
The great majority of all human beings on the globe lived a life different from that of Castalia, simpler, more primitive, more dangerous, more disorderly, less sheltered. And this primitive world was innate in every man; everyone felt something of it in his own heart, had some curiosity about it, some nostalgia for it, some sympathy for it. . . . Castalia remained the training ground and refuge for that small band of men whose lives were to be consecrated to Mind and to truth. Then why were these two worlds apparently unable to live in fraternal harmony, parallel and intertwined; why could an individual not cherish and unite both within himself? (100)
Castalia is one tradition, one ground against which Knecht is able to shape himself and come to an understanding of the nature of reality. Yet, particularly as Knecht discovers in his conversations with Father Jacobus, who teaches him world history for the first time, the Castalian tradition is an incomplete picture of being. The order’s mistake was to exclude things such as history as being ugly and brutal and therefore irrelevant to their civilized and beautiful life of the mind. This led them to deny the innate physical, emotional, and social ground of being that every human shares.
When Knecht decides to leave Castalia, he tenders his resignation to the head of the order. Unsurprisingly, the man is desperate – in his controlled Castalian way – to insist that Knecht’s resignation demonstrates some long-hidden imperfection in Knecht, some trait that made him a less than ideal Castalian and that had caused his irrational decision to resign. The President insists:
“A man can be a star of the first magnitude in gifts, will-power, and endurance, but so well balanced that he turns with the system to which he belongs without any friction or waste of energy. Another may have the same great gifts, or even finer ones, but the axis does not pass precisely through the center and he squanders half his strength in eccentric movements which weaken him and disturb his surroundings. You evidently belong to this type. Only I must admit that you have contrived to conceal it remarkably.” (397)
The President, of course, is mistaken; Knecht actually is what he appeared to be, an exemplary Castalian. What the President cannot see, however, is that it is the Castalian order, not Knecht, that has become imbalanced, isolationist, and narcissistic. Knecht’s very devotion to the purity of the Castalian virtues have allowed him to fully fuse his personal horizon with that tradition, with the result that the real-world instantiation of the order itself has revealed itself as wanting. Castalia, Knecht discovers, only nurtures and preserves one part of being, though an unusually precious and beautiful part. As a servant less of the order than of its ideals, Knecht understands that he must warn the order to correct its imbalance before disaster strikes, and then pursue the continuing expansion of his own horizon with life itself.
When we attempt to understand Knecht’s interaction with Castalia as an example of Gadamer’s fusion of horizons, Jürgen Habermas’s criticisms of Gadamer become clear. Gadamer sees authority and submission to tradition not as obedience to a ruling force, but rather as willing submission to superior knowledge – which is certainly Knecht’s attitude towards Castalia for the majority of his life. Habermas, however, believes this position is insufficiently critical of authority, and argues that Gadamer’s position limits our ability to examine and possibly reject prejudices and preconceptions (i.e. parts of tradition) that are destructive. For Habermas, knowledge is not grounded in tradition, but in “rational insight and decision” (Holub, 66) that have the capability of rejecting what has been handed down. Thus, Habermas sees Gadamer’s theories as making the critique of ideology impossible, and is driven to ground his interpretation of the human sciences in something other than tradition. Where Gadamer seems to see language as a pure system that is untainted by power and social structures, Habermas claims instead that “language is also a medium of domination and social power; it serves to legitimate relations of organized force” (Holub, 67). Although the Castalian tradition has not been imbalanced by the misuse of power per se, it has been negatively influenced by its rejection of the structures of power and its unwillingness to have any dealings with the world at large. In its quest to preserve the things of the mind unsullied, it has broken a vital connection with the world outside, with the result that it lacks the ability to self-critique. This obliviousness and lack of self-consciousness have imperiled the order, and Knecht observes its effects in the brilliant but weak and unstable Tegularius, just as we observe it in the initially pompous and biased tones of the biographer. Habermas’s warning to Gadamer that what he accepts as “tradition” may not be as universal as it seems is the same warning that Knecht gives Castalia before setting off on his own separate path toward something greater. The fact that Knecht does set off to fuse his horizon with something greater than Castalian tradition, however, suggests that Gadamer’s model of understanding may still be useful if we posit the existence of a more universal consciousness than the one the term “tradition” generally calls to mind.
It is significant to note that at times when Gadamer refers to “tradition,” he seems to be talking about something much broader than merely a given culture’s accumulated art, science, religion, and other forms of expression. In his discussion of Gadamer, Robert C. Holub places the philosopher within Paul Ricoeur’s category of the hermeneutics of faith or the sacred.
The hermeneutics of faith or hermeneutics of the sacred seeks to make manifest or restore a meaning, understood as a message, a proclamation, or a kerygma. . . . It presupposes a confidence in the power of language, but not necessarily as a medium of communication between individuals. Rather, the ability to interpret symbols stems from the fact that humans are born into language, ‘into the light of the logos.’ (75-6)
In the final subsection of Truth and Method, entitled “Language as Horizon of a Hermeneutic Ontology,” Gadamer discusses humanity as being situated within a linguistic universe, and insists that “Being that can be understood is language” (474). Against Habermas, Gadamer argues that we cannot escape our position in a linguistically mediated universe, and that language is part of the culture and tradition that we receive and to which we must at least partially submit in order to understand anything. The statement that “Being that can be understood is language” associates the fusion of horizons with the understanding of being itself. Gadamer’s position within a philosophical tradition that is distinctively religious becomes clear. If the human being’s ability to interpret symbols and fuse her personal horizon with that of tradition brings understanding of the nature of being, than that interpretive ability becomes an expression of a divine consciousness. The association of the Logos, or divine word, with the incarnation of Christ in the gospel of John, is just the most famous example of the long Western tradition that identifies language as the mark of divinity. Gadamer’s hermeneutics become nothing less than a system for understanding the nature of the divine.
Thus, when Hesse speaks of “the mind of man, that Mind which has no beginning and always has contained everything that it later produces” (469), and which is articulated through the passing down of culture and tradition and the progressive fusion of the horizons of the young with that of the old, we are also reminded of the Logos who was with God in the beginning, and through whom all things were made (John 1:2-3). Gadamer claims universality for his hermeneutics through the inescapability of language, the presence of which is the mark of the sacred. Thus the tradition with which our personal horizons are fused is much more than simply cultural expression, but perhaps accumulated human consciousness and experience itself, encoded in the linguistic universe that we cannot escape. Thus the reason for Knecht’s defection is fully revealed. Having exhausted the Castalian tradition, yet still devoted to its ideals of truth and beauty, Knecht leaves Castalia to attempt to fuse his horizon with Being itself, particularly those aspects of the sensual, social, and physical that Castalia denied. The Mind of Man, the Logos called by another name, is vaster and more complex than sterile Castalia would have it.
Castalia is not a religious order, the biographer repeatedly remarks that the
Game is not a religion, but is approached with a religious attitude (Father
Jacobus is quoted as saying, “I grant that you try to exalt this pretty game
into something akin to a sacrament, or at least to a device for edification”
). This, when combined with the fact that all three protagonists in
Knecht’s Lives are involved in some way with religious practice (Knecht the
Rainmaker is a shaman; Joseph is a Christian hermit; Dasa
seeks to train with an Indian yogi), suggests that though the novel’s focus is
more spiritual than religious, it would not be a terrible misreading to view it
through a religious lens. Similarly, when we consider Knecht’s spiritual
journey as following Gadamer’s fusion of horizons
model, we see more clearly that the ultimate result of such a hermeneutical
quest for understanding is insight into the nature of sacred Being. It is
perhaps obvious on first reading that The
Glass Bead Game is the story of a man’s journey toward spirit, a spirit
that reveals itself most clearly in the elegance of the Game, but is also to be
found throughout creation. What is revealed when the novel is read together
with Truth and Method, however, is
that Gadamer’s quest for understanding, which also
begins with art before reaching out for universality, may describe much the
same journey. Though in this essay I have attempted to use Gadamer to draw out
the religious and spiritual themes of
Capps, Walter H. Religious Studies. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1995.
Gadamer, Hans-Georg. Truth and
Method. Trans. Joel Weisheimer and Donald G.
Marshall. Second, Revised Edition.
Hesse, Hermann. The
Glass Bead Game (Magister Ludi). Trans. Richard and Clara Winston.
Holub, Robert C. Jürgen Habermas: Critic in the Public Sphere.
Mileck, Joseph. Hermann
Hesse: Life and Art.
Norton, Roger C. Hermann Hesse’s
Ziolkowski, Theodore. Foreword. The Glass Bead Game (Magister Ludi). By Hermann Hesse.
Trans. Richard and Clara Winston.
Copyright (c) 2002 by Christine Hoff Kraemer